Brief History of the Ancient Human Dream of Human Flight

Humans have dreamed about flying from ancient times. We have discovered cave paintings depicting human flight. Ancient myths and stories talk about humans and Gods flying. However, for the longest time, it was believed that human flight was impossible. In the 19th century, various inventors tried to make the impossible possible, before the Wright Brothers actually did it. Let’s take a look at how the human dream of flight evolved and materialized over the years.

The ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who built wings to escape prison, depicted both the attraction and the dangers of flying. (Image: Wmpearl/Public domain)

First Flight

The winds were blowing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In the nearby lonely Kill Devil Hills, part of the Outer Banks barrier islands of North Carolina, the cold winds were more intense, reaching speeds up to 21 miles per hour. Occasionally, sand from the beach swirled up.

It was the morning of December 17, 1903, at 10:35. A small cluster of seven people were standing by the side of a strange long contraption: a frame covered with muslin cloth. Two men, both dressed with a certain odd formality in white shirts with dark ties and dark suits, were the focus of attention.

They shook hands, then one man lay down upon the structure, which vibrated with the pulse of a machine, and then started to move along a track on the ground. The other man ran alongside the sliding object.

Then, suddenly, the structure lifted up into the air. This thing, which its inventors called the Wright Flyer, sailed up in the air. For 12 seconds, it stayed up in the air, and then smacked down into the sand, after having traversed 120 feet. Later flights lasted longer and went further.

This was an exhilarating turning point in human history, as two bicycle engineers on a lonely beach broke the shackles of Earth for the very first time, achieving the ancient human dream of steered and powered human flight.

Ancient Stories of Flight

Today, we’ve become so used to the routine of air travel that it’s difficult to imagine a time before this, to really feel the wonder that clung to the very idea of flying. The possibility of humans soaring like birds had been declared impossible many times, and yet this was always a permanent fantasy of the human race.

The heavens were both alluring and forbidding; they were the realm of divinity, not of humans. From the earliest art, gods and angels and spirits were depicted with wings added to human-like forms, to show their power and transcendence; literally their ability to rise above. Psalm 55 exclaims, for instance, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove. I would fly away.”

The ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus depicted both the attraction and the dangers of flying. In this story, to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete, the inventor Daedalus built himself and his son wings of wax and feathers, and then they both took off for freedom, over the waters of the Mediterranean.

In the process, Daedalus warned Icarus to take a middle course, flying above the waves but not too close to the Sun, not too high, because that would melt the artificial wings. But his son Icarus, once he had begun flying, was just enraptured by the sheer joy of it, and flew too high, until the Sun melted his wings and he fell to his death. So from the very beginnings, there was a cautionary note about the entrancing prospect of flying.

Over the centuries, in each age, there were men who were driven by this dream to fly, who sought to recreate birdlike wings to get themselves aloft after jumping from heights. Predictably, many of these intrepid souls ended up killing themselves in the attempt.

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